How to Cross a Railroad Safely in 2020
Rethinking Grade Crossing Warning Devices: After losing my wife at a railroad crossing in suburban NYC, I took a long, hard look at crossings.
In visual terms, railroad crossing signage speaks a different language than other highway signs - like American vs British English. But these can be fixed quite inexpensively.
Here are six ways to make crossings much safer at minimal costs.
Use Bollards to Protect the Crossing
If the no. 1 cause of crossing incidents is impatient drivers going around the gates, the solution is simple: Place bollards (rigid poles) at the median for several car lengths. Few drivers would go that far on the wrong side of the street to beat a crossing. Bollards can even be ordered online.
Use Pop-up Barriers Instead of Creaky Gates
At $300,000 to install an electromechanical gate, a hydraulic pop-up would cost a fraction of the price. They can also tilt so stuck cars can easily back over them.
Change the Flashing Lights to an LED Warning Strip
The visual language becomes a real issue when the lights flash. At railroad crossings, flashing red lights represent rapidly approaching danger. On the highway, however, flashing red lights represent a lower-level hazard than a steady red light. Drivers tend to interpret them as a yield or a sign that the regular traffic lights aren't working properly. Some percentage of drivers will react this way.
Put English in the "Lollipop" Warning Sign
The main reason railroad signs are different is because they were not designed for motorists, mainly because there weren't any at the time. They were designed for ranchers, since the greatest fear of a 19th Century rail baron was plowing into a herd of cattle. Warning - Railroad Crossing would do it.
Give the Crossbuck a Background—No Angles and "Tracks"
The average driver cannot read at a 45-degree angle, even if the words do say "Rail Crossing." Often, the crossbuck, being white, gets lost behind white clouds. So, put a background board and add the warning at eye level, the way humans actually read—especially when driving.
Lower the Crossbuck and Light It
Since the crossbuck was intended to speak to ranchers, it had to be high enough that it could be seem by a man on a horse—around 13 feet. The typical roadside warning sign is set at around 7 feet. So it is too high for its reflector material to pick up motor-vehicle headlights from closer than about 50 to 75 feet. On a straight road, the sign will actually turn dark as you get closer. On a sharp turns under 75 feet, are not seen at all.